Around noon on Sunday, November 29, search and rescue units recovered the body of Swiss professional trail runner Andrea Huser above the ski resort town of Saas-Fee, in the Swiss Alps. According to a press release issued by the local police station, Huser probably lost her footing while trying to cross a stream on a slope beneath the Alpin Express gondola and fell an estimated 450 feet. She was 46 years old.
Huser’s talents extended well beyond the sphere of long-distance trail running, a sport she only ventured into relatively late in her athletic career. In 2002, she became the inaugural women’s winner in the marathon category of the European Mountain Biking Championships, a triumph she would follow with a victory in the 2004 edition of Switzerland’s prestigious Eiger Bike Challenge. She was a two-time winner (2011, 2012) of the Inferno Triathlon, and a member of Mammut’s ski-mountaineering pro team. It wasn’t until she was in her mid-40s that Huser experienced what were arguably her greatest athletic successes. In 2017, she was the women’s champion of the Ultra Trail World Tour, a title currently held by Courtney Dauwalter. In 2016 and 2017, Huser finished second in the women’s race at UTMB—an achievement which, as she noted earlier this year on her Facebook page, was “a highlight of my life.”
After that peak year of 2017, Huser’s relentless racing schedule began to catch up to her. In June of 2020, she announced that, after experiencing her fourth stress fracture in three years, she had decided to retire from competitive running—though not from seeking adventure in the mountains near her home in Sigriswil, outside the Swiss capital of Bern.
Stephanie Case, an ultrarunner and U.N. lawyer who lives in Chamonix, France, told me that she met Huser several times at ultras in 2017. She recalls being struck both by how much Huser raced, and by how indifferent she seemed to be about the self-promotional side of the sport. All she wanted to do was run. After initially being sponsored by Dynafit and then Mammut, Huser signed a deal with Hoka in 2018. According to an article in the Swiss newspaper Thuner Tagblatt, she also received some funding from Pro Sports Sigriswil, her local club, granting her the financial leeway to race as far afield as Hong Kong, where she won the Ultra-Trail Tai Mo Shan in December 2017.
By then, she had a lot of miles in her legs. A quick search of the race results website ultrasignup.com reveals that in 2016 and 2017, Huser completed no fewer than 20 ultras on four continents. Not that she necessarily believed that her prolific schedule was a big deal.
As Case recalls: “If I expressed concern that I was racing too much, or that I was doing two races too close together, Andrea would just look at me like she was genuinely puzzled. She would look at me and ask: ‘Why not? Why wouldn’t you go?’ She was just up for anything.”
Like the many others in the ultrarunning community, Case was deeply saddened to hear about Huser’s freak accident—one that bore a striking similarity to her own experience in January 2017, when she fell 140 feet during a solo New Year’s Day snowshoe run near Courmayeur, in Italy, just off a trail she says she’s run a “billion times” before. After her fall, Case managed to call a helicopter and was eventually diagnosed with six broken ribs, a punctured lung, and a grade III laceration of her liver.
And she was lucky. Huser’s accident is a painful reminder of the inherent risk of all mountain sports—a risk that is perhaps obscured by the more flamboyantly dangerous activities like BASE jumping or extreme skiing. On the day that Huser’s body was recovered, the same police station published another press release that a 51-year-old hiker had slipped on frozen grass in nearby Zermatt and fallen to her death.
“It never occurred to me that I was doing something risky,” Case told me about her accident. “This was snow-shoe running. It’s, like, ping pong. It’s not supposed to be a dangerous sport.”
Of course, everyone is wiser in hindsight. Case told me that one of the things that irked her after her accident was the number of people who wanted to lecture her on how you should never run alone in the mountains. But solo efforts are an inevitable aspect of training for an ultra. The risk is always going to be there. But also the reward.
As Huser wrote in her retirement post this summer: “Nevertheless, I will continue to do various adventures on trails and in the mountains with skis, mountain bikes or trail running shoes. If everything goes well, in 3-4 months. The mountains don’t run away from me and anticipation is the greatest joy!!!”